This summer, when so much of the world is riven by divisive politics and hostility, I’m reveling in books, podcasts and television shows. All these offer messages of hope but also make me think deeply about what’s wrong with our world and provide insights into making it better.
Here are some of my favorites:
Half of a Yellow Sun (novel) and The Danger of a Single Story (podcast), both by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Alternative to Stereotyping
I’m sure some of you can relate to the joy of discovering great books and podcasts that came out years ago, finally reading and listening to them, and being so moved that you can’t imagine your life without them. That’s how I feel about Ngozi Adichie’s 2006 novel and 2009 podcast. If you are someone who thinks a lot about building a world anchored in love, inclusion, and compassion, both the book and the podcast are for you. You’ll be inspired to keep exercising those muscles by making extra efforts to see the richness of everyone’s life–no matter how different they are to your own experience–rather than relying on our very human but faulty stereotypes.
When They See Us, created by Ava DuVernay, and An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones
A tough look at our criminal justice system
How do people survive and thrive in a society that is designed to oppress them? Friends told me that it would be too harrowing to watch When They See Us in one sitting. It is Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series about the five young men of color who were falsely convicted in the 1989 Central Park jogger case. They were right. But we must watch it. Similarly, although An American Marriage is a page-turner of a novel, I kept putting it down because of its heart-wrenching twists and turns. But it must be read. The novel tells the story of how America’s prison-industrial complex destroys the marriage, friendships and career of Roy Hamilton, an African-American corporate executive who was falsely accused of rape, then convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison. It’s a story of shattered lives and dreams, and reading it shattered my heart as well. Yet Jones shows her characters ability to maintain their human dignity despite existing in a society and system that is grossly inequitable.
What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture, by Ben Horowitz
Sometimes the smartest advice comes from unlikely sources
“When you are a leader, even your accidental actions set the culture… Your view or your executive team’s view of your culture is rarely what your employees experience… That’s the nature of culture. It’s not a single decision–it’s a code that manifests itself as a vast set of actions taken over time. No one person makes or takes all these actions. That’s the point.”
These are the kinds of insights I took away from Ben Horowitz’s latest book. Horowitz is a technology entrepreneur, co-founder of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, blogger and author, and he is my go-to guru on organizational culture. In this remarkable book scheduled for publication in the fall, Horowitz finds inspiration for leading 21st Century organizations in a diverse and unlikely quartet: Toussaint Louverture, Genghis Khan, the Samurai, and Shaka Senghor. Since I’m always curious about the similarities and differences between investments by successful venture capitalists (VCs) and AJWS’s investments in social change leaders and movements, the highlight of Horowitz’s book is how he applied Samurai virtues to his company’s beginnings. The bottom line: VCs must always respect the entrepreneur because VCs depend on entrepreneurs for their existence–just as AJWS is in service of grass-rooted organizations.
Confronting Hate: The Untold Story of the Rabbi Who Stood Up for Human Rights, Racial Justice, and Religious Reconciliation, by Deborah Hart Strober & Gerald S. Strober
Lessons for bridging religious and racial differences
Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum (1925-1992) was a human rights activist. He built interfaith bridges to eliminate entrenched stereotypes rooted in religious teachings. Not surprisingly, Rabbi Tanenbaum and his widow, Dr. Georgette Bennett, were also on the founding board of American Jewish World Service, in 1985. In this new biography, published in June, authors Deborah Hart and Gerald Strober take us on the journey of Rabbi Marc’s fascinating life and legacy. The book’s release couldn’t be timelier. As Dr. Bennett reminds us in a recent interview about her late husband:
“He was a universalist rather than a particularist, which was very important in terms of his effectiveness… And then the idea of tikkun olam… that Jews are chosen, not for special privilege, but for special responsibility to repair and perfect the world… Also very important was that while he was committed to Jewish identity, he was not about Jewish insularity. That’s why he was able to build the bridges he built.”
My summer list, as it turns out, has a theme: We need to push ourselves to upend our assumptions. This means finding heroes in unexpected places; it means rejecting stereotypes; it means learning from those who lived before us. I hope you’ll find some of these recommendations interesting, and please do send me your reactions, as well as your own lists.
Robert Bank is President and CEO of American Jewish World Service, the leading Jewish organization working to promote human rights in the developing world. Robert has spent his career championing human rights as an attorney, activist and leader. He joined AJWS as Executive Vice President in 2009 and previously served in New York’s municipal government and in the leadership of GMHC—one of the world’s leading organizations combatting HIV/AIDS. Robert has been honored with GMHC’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the Partners in Justice Award from AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.